I work for Atlas Obscura, a digital media start-up that focuses its mission on exploration, adventure, curiosity, and wonder. Much of our work looks at celebrating the uniqueness of place. I recently staffed a two-week trip to Bhutan for my company and traveled with a group of 16 individuals drawn from across the United States, ranging in age from late 20s to mid-70s. I served as a kind of on-the-ground fixer, ensuring that the trip ran smoothly and providing extra support to our team of guides.
After Bhutan, I traveled to Taiwan, my parents’ native home, to meet up with my 77-year-old father in his home town to visit his extended family. My dad traveled from California to meet me. He likes to say to relatives that he “didn’t really want to go, but his daughter scolded him.” It’s true. Our loved ones are aging and two of my uncles passed away in recent years. My remaining aunts and uncles are also rapidly aging and confronting various health issues. I felt it was important for each of us to return, to revisit those connections.
My visit to Taiwan coincided with a special festival that only occurs every few years—the Wang Yeh boat-burning festival, which involves the building of a beautiful wooden boat by community members that is then burned to the ground in a ritual act that involves sending the negative energy, wishes, and karma of the past years up to heaven with the Wang Yeh boat captain. It’s a stunning act that is both creative and destructive.
“I’ve always been drawn to off-the-beaten path discoveries, but since joining the staff of Atlas Obscura, I’ve been more deliberate about seeking out these experiences that inspire wonder.”
I capped off my trip with a two-day tour to Kinmen Island, a part of Taiwan that is hotly contested. Located off the coast of China, much of Taiwan’s military history endures here, as well as amazing architectural history that I haven’t seen in other parts of Taiwan.
Bhutan has been very intentional and cautious about opening up its borders to tourism in order to preserve its heritage and culture. The style of Buddhism that is deeply rooted in the Bhutanese way of seeing and living came directly from Tibet centuries ago and the Bhutanese people speak Dzongkha, a Tibetan language. It’s very complex to think about the ways in which Bhutan is currently evolving and emerging — you have the notion of Gross National Happiness that is a national initiative and a paradigm for alternative development. On the other hand, there is poverty and unemployment in Bhutan – the country is still paving and building roads, and creating infrastructure. Bhutan is also seeing the rapid effects of melting glaciers and climate change which will impact its hydropower and economy. When one pairs these two ideas together, the question that arises for me is, prosperity, or happiness for who?
“In Taiwan, thinking about culture means accounting for outside influences, as well as the presence of indigenous tribal people.”
How do you see this experience as related to your own leadership in arts and culture work?
In order to lead, I need to understand who I am and where I come from. These particular journeys took me back to important parts of my lineage or ancestry. I took vows of Buddhist refuge twenty years ago with Gangteng Tulku Rinpoche, a visiting Bhutanese teacher who initiated me onto the Buddhist path when I was a graduate student at the Naropa Institute in Boulder, Colorado. So taking that journey to the spiritual motherland was very much about reconnecting to that part of my commitment and awareness of where mindfulness and lived values fit into how I want to be in the world, as a human being and leader doing the work that I do.I was born and grew up in the U.S., but going “home” to Taiwan, is always an exercise in considering the complexity of identities and cultivating empathy — honoring the effort and care that it takes to reach across cultural, generational, and linguistic barriers to forge understanding and connection, or love.
What were the most surprising outcomes for you? What were some of the a-ha moments for the people you were with?
Everyone on my trip was going through their own individual journey and I can’t speak to what their a-ha moments were. I know that two-thirds of the group had specifically Buddhist interests, and I think participating in sacred rituals like consecrating prayer flags and raising them in the landscape were quite powerful. Offering butter lamps at Gangtey Monastery was very meaningful. These were moments of profound beauty, abundance, and generosity that were bestowed upon us as guests in a foreign land.
in another land
my guide says
is akin to cutting
here, he says
In Taiwan, seeing the burning boat sparked some ideas about some ways in which I’m trying to talk about my creative practice. I’m trying to write the introduction for my next book which will come out in 2019 from Entre Rios Books. It will be a survey of my visual, book art, and public art projects with some poems, and personal essays folded in, as well as some interpretive essays by others. I talk about creative practice in the book quite a bit, and I think that there is a metaphor in there about setting fire to one’s practice – periodically burning it to the ground and reinventing the way in which I make or think.
“All of this work is bringing me into contact with artists and arts leaders who are often from underrepresented backgrounds, and in scientific circles that are new to me. I’m excited to have cross-disciplinary conversations…”
A lot of opportunities have been flowing my direction. I’ve been invited to serve as an advisor for the King Street Station in Seattle, an arts and cultural space managed by the City of Seattle’s Office of Arts and Culture. I’m also serving as an artist-in-residence for the Pacific Science Center where I’ll likely get to work closely with a scientist for the next three months. I’ll also be doing some work with local public radio – I’ve recently been fortunate to be included in the first cohort of a nerdy supper club of journalist: KOUW’s Curiosity Club.
All of this work is bringing me into contact with artists and arts leaders who are often from underrepresented backgrounds, and in scientific circles that are new to me. I’m excited to have cross-disciplinary conversations with subject area experts who focus on work that is quite different than my own and bringing those connections into work that I am already exploring.